This article was originally published in the May 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


For the time being relations between Russia and the West are stable – even cordial.

The economic modernisation policies of the current Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (which require co-operation with the west, not confrontation), US president Barack Obama’s more inclusive’ foreign policy, falling oil and gas prices in 2008/2009 (which undermined Russian economic might), and the election in 2009 of a more pro-Russian government in Ukraine have all contributed to a reduction in tension between Russia and the West.

However it’s far from clear as to whether that reduction is a permanent one – or whether tensions could easily return in the medium term future.

Much will depend on Russia’s relationship with the now independent states which once made up the rest of the Soviet Union. If, in the future, any of those countries were to excessively challenge Russia’s perception of its own ‘paternal’ role in the region, east/west tensions could re-emerge.

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One potential future flashpoint is the majority Russian-speaking Autonomous Republic of Crimea which, while part of Ukraine (not Russia) is home to the Russian Black Sea fleet - and is likely to remain so till at least 2042, following the recently [2009] elected more pro-Russian Ukrainian government’s politically controversial decision to extend the Russian naval base lease agreement.

Crimea is also home to another (and expanding) ethnic group – the Crimean Tartars who, during their history, suffered much at the hands of Mother Russia.

In a sense, the story of early modern and modern Crimea is the tale of three peoples – Russians, Ukrainians and originally-Mongol-led Tatars. The Tatars, a central Asia-originating Turkic people, took over and populated Crimea in the 13th century following Genghis Khan’s great Mongol expansion. At first the Crimean Tatars were merely a minor part of the Mongol Empire but by the mid-15th century, they had founded their own state, the Khanate of Crimea, which became an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire and the main centre for the medieval white slave trade.

Between the 1440s and the early 18th century around a million slaves from what is now Ukraine and south Russia were abducted by the Crimeans and sold to Turkish and Arab buyers across the Middle East. Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the north, the Principality of Moscow (proto-Russia) was beginning to expand. By the mid-16th century it was just a few miles from the Black Sea.

Indeed for the next two centuries it was only the power of the Crimean Tatar state that prevented Russia from acquiring a warm water port. Yet as Russian power succeeded in preventing Tatar slave raids, the slave-based economy and the power of the Crimean state began to falter – and in 1783 Russia seized Crimea, built a warm water navy and constructed a great port (Sevastopol) to accommodate it. The tables had been well and truly turned. Face to face with the Ottoman Empire, Russia increasingly found herself at war with the Turks – and it was the Crimean Tatars who often paid the price.

Viewed as a pro-Turkish ‘fifth column’, the Muslim Tatars were periodically persecuted and driven into exile in the Ottoman Empire. The worst episode, which saw 200,000 Tatars migrate, followed Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. As Slav settlers flowed into Crimea from what is now Ukraine and Russia, the Crimean Tatars quickly became a minority in their own land.

A Tatar-led attempt to recreate an independent Crimea in the revolutionary chaos of 1917 was crushed by the Red Army – but the final blow came in 1944 when Stalin (angered by some Tatars’ collaboration with the Germans in the Second World War) ordered the deportation to central Asia of the entire Crimean Tatar race. Almost 200,000 were dumped in camps in the arid interior of Soviet Uzbekistan and elsewhere – and at least 40,000 died in the deportation and its aftermath. Tens of thousands of Russians were settled on the land that the Tatars had been forced to vacate.

It was at that point that Crimea became an overwhelmingly Russian-populated territory. Its demographic and geographical situation was anomalous. Although it was geographically an extension of Ukraine, demographically and politically it had become Russian. Indeed ever since 1921, it had been part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (the RSFSR) – not part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The de-Stalinisation process

In 1954 the situation dramatically changed – paving the way for the current tensions. When Stalin died in 1953, there was a leadership struggle between the then relatively conservative Nikita Khrushchev, the slightly more liberal Georgy Malenkov and Stalin’s security chief Lavrentiy Beria. Beria’s ‘campaign pitch’ was to build support in the non-Russian republics (especially in Khrushchev’s main support base, Ukraine) by opposing Russification and by putting non-Russians into top political jobs.

Khrushchev and Malenkov’s response was to have Beria arrested, tried and shot. However they still somehow had to satisfy the national expectations that Beria had raised in Ukraine. The solution they seem to have hit upon was to arrange for Russia to give Crimea to the Ukraine. As part of the de-Stalinisation process, the move helped signal to Ukrainians that Stalin’s long-standing anti-Ukrainian policies were now well and truly over.

However the transfer was only possible because of the relative weakness of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union. Russia had been the centre of political power in the tsarist empire – but in the Soviet system, the power of the Russian republic was effectively neutralized. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union realized that a fully empowered Russian state within the USSR would be a threat to Soviet power – an internal rival. The Soviet Union’s leaders therefore never allowed Russia to have its own Communist Party hierarchy in the same way that Ukraine and other republics did.

So when Khrushchev and the Soviet Communist Party transferred Crimea from
Russia to Ukraine, Crimea’s Russian population and Russia itself were not in a position to do anything about it.

At the time, of course, Ukraine was a loyal part of the USSR. But, as the Soviet Union began to liberalise in the late 1980s, just prior to its disintegration, nationalist ideas came to the fore in its constituent republics – including the Ukraine.

Ukrainian nationalism had been a relatively recent development. It had first come into existence mainly as a cultural movement in the 1820s and 1830s, partly an unintended result of the tsar’s decision to set up a university in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. He thought that encouraging Ukrainian (then known as ‘Little Russian’) culture would reduce Polish cultural and political influence in the region – but, instead, it led to the rapid emergence of a proto-nationalist movement that challenged the Moscow-centric nature of tsarist Russia and advocated a more federal structure.

The drive for nationhood

In the 1890s, a more strident Ukrainian nationalism emerged in the western half of the country (which, in the 19th century, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and articulated the first demands for an independent Ukrainian state.

With the defeat of Austria-Hungary in the First World War, western Ukraine became part of the newly constructed state of Poland – and when the Nazis and the Soviets carved up Poland in 1939, western Ukraine was, for the first time in its history, united with eastern (ie former tsarist, then Soviet) Ukraine. It was this acquisition of western Ukraine, courtesy of Hitler and Stalin, that eventually fuelled much of the drive for nationhood in the late Soviet and post-Soviet era.

Ukraine (whose western ‘half ’ was once politically part of central Europe and never part of the tsar’s empire) has been wanting to join the European Union for the past several years (although Ukraine’s desire to join NATO has been dropped by the more pro-Russia government, elected in 2009). The opposition - strongest in Ukraine’s western half – was not happy when last year the Ukrainian government acceded to Russian demands to allow Russia to keep its Black Sea fleet in Crimea till almost the middle of the century.

Over the past 20 years, the Crimean Tatars (seen by many Ukrainians as allies against the Crimean Russians) have been returning to Crimea from exile in central Asia – and there is growing tension between Tatars and Russians over the lands that the Tatars lost at the hands of Stalin in 1944. Inexorably, the forgotten strands of European and Asian history may one day come together in Crimea with consequences as yet unknown.

Crimea: a brief history

1222: Mongols take over region

1441: Crimean khanate founded

1783: Russia annexes Crimea
1840s: Birth of Ukrainian nationalism

1853–56: Crimean War

1857–59: 200,000 Crimean Tatars go into exile

1917: Russian Revolution

1944: Stalin deports Crimean Tatars

1954: Crimea given to Ukraine

1989: Tatars start returning to Crimea

1991: Break-up of USSR

2008: Ukraine’s leadership hints that Russian fleet will have to leave Sevastopol by 2017.

2009: New more-pro-Russian government elected in Ukraine.

2010: New Ukrainian government allows Russian fleet to stay in Crimea till the at least 2042.

Further reading:

The Crimean Tatars: The Diaspora and the Forging of a Nation by Brian Williams (Brill, 2001)

Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatar's Deportation and Return by Greta Uehling (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)


Between Russia, Ottomans and Turks: Crimea and Crimean Tatars by Alan Fisher (Isis, 1998)